Baseball

Red Sox Fan Favorite: Sandy León

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In 2019, with just three weeks left in the season and coming off a year in which they won a championship, the Boston Red Sox fired GM Dave Dombrowski. While they had just won a World Series, Dombrowski left the Red Sox with a depleted farm system and the highest payroll in baseball.

Under Dombrowski, the Red Sox had risen from a last-place team to a team that won three straight division titles, culminating in a championship. For most Red Sox fans, that period of time is marked by many unbelievable performances including David Ortiz‘s dominance in his last year at age-40, Mookie Betts‘ posting arguably the greatest individual season of the decade, and Chris Sale‘s record-setting strikeout run. But, one of the most standout moments of the Dombrowski era in Red Sox baseball came from something else: a two-month stretch by Sandy León in 2016.

A Historic Run

On March 30, 2015, the Boston Red Sox acquired catcher Sandy León from the Washington Nationals in exchange for cash considerations. To this point in his career, León had performed poorly in 107 career plate appearances, hitting .189 and posting an OPS of merely .533. Initially supposed to be a fourth catcher, injuries to Ryan Hanigan and Christian Vazquez gave León a chance at playing time in 2015, allowing him to get 128 plate appearances as the backup catcher to Blake Swihart. Once again, León showed limited talent with the bat, hitting .184 with a .440 OPS. At the end of the 2015 season, the Red Sox designated León for assignment, and his time with the Red Sox seemed over.

But, León cleared waivers, signed back with Boston on a minor-league contract, and after injuries to Hanigan and Swihart, he got another chance. From a pinch-hitting performance on June 7th to July 30th, León had an incredible stretch of success at the plate. Over 100 plate appearances, León hit .391 for an OPS of .1054, including reaching base in his first six PA. His 182 wRC+ ranked 5th in the league over that span, earning nicknames such as “Superstorm Sandy” and “The Only Active Hall of Famer.” While León cooled off the rest of the season, he still finished the season hitting .310 with a 124 wRC+, meaning he was 24% above league average.

In order to understand how unexpected this performance is, it’s helpful to look at León’s performance in context. Every hitter can get hot at some point, but León was among the most unlikely to have a two-month run where he was the fifth-best hitter in baseball. From 2000-2021, among players with at least 1000 PA, León ranks 20th-worst with a career wRC+ of 59. And his 2016 season as a whole dwarfs every other season of his with a significant amount of plate appearances, as he was not close to league average any other year. This is not to attack León’s hitting skills, but rather to show how shocking his run truly was.

Behind the Dish

While his run in 2016 was remarkable, Sandy León was able to stay in Boston for five years because of his incredible defense at the catcher position. From 2017 to 2019, León was one of the best defenders at the position, saving 27.9 runs above average according to Baseball Prospectus.

León’s experience and effectiveness with the pitching staff was also appreciated. During his time in Boston, León had a catchers’ ERA of 3.74, meaning that when he was catching, Red Sox pitchers had an ERA of 3.74. While it is hard to quantify the impact of calling a good game, multiple Red Sox pitchers preferred pitching to León, including Chris Sale, who is notorious for never shaking off his catcher. León had a career ERA of 2.53 as Sale’s battery mate. In 2019, while Sale had a 6.68 ERA with Christian Vazquez in 6 starts, he maintained a 3.79 ERA with León. Even when León was not hitting, his defensive talents and comfort with the pitching staff made him a valuable player.

Beloved in Boston

León’s time in Boston will be best remembered for his 2016 run. But, he still played a valuable role in the 2018 championship, appearing in 10 of the team’s postseason games. León was a hard worker who never criticized his teammates and always took accountability, which is one of the many reasons why he received an ovation when he returned to Fenway Park this year.

While the average baseball fan may not know who Sandy León is, to Red Sox fans he will always be beloved.

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main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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